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2 December 2012

"And the winner is...does it matter?" A review of the 2012 Turner Prize

After a year away at Gateshead the Turner Prize annual award for contemporary British art returns for its 28th year at London’s Tate Britain.

I last saw the Turner Prize in 2005 when it was won by Simon Starling who exhibited a shed which was turned into a boat and then back into a shed again. That year I wanted the painter Gillian Carnegie to win and in the years that proceeded, although I never visited the Turner Prize exhibition I still closely followed its winners and nominees with great interest. Since then after studying art for six years it no longer bothered me that the artists I picked seldom won the prize, I simply liked the debate and sometimes even the controversy the prize caused amongst artists, critics and the public alike. With that in mind, I took the opportunity this year to visit the Turner Prize in person.

Selected by directors from British art galleries and institutions the 2012 nominees are; Spartacus Chetwynd with a canvialesque live performance piece, Luke Fowler with a film exploring the ideas and legacy of psychiatrist R D Laing, Paul Noble with a series of large pencil drawings depicting manmade landscapes and Elizabeth Price with an immersive digital video montage featuring footage of a fire that broke out in a Woolworths store in 1979.
 Chetwynd’s Turner Prize piece is bonkers and to quote one Guardian reviewer is, “Like being hit over the head with a pig’s bladder.” Ha, ha, so true but that is what is so wonderfully refreshing about it too. One of the first live performance based pieces in the Turner Prize’s history and set in its own bizarre low budget, sellotaped, painted and glued world of amateur looking stage and costume design. Although it is exactly the amateur looking nature of the set that is worthy of applause as it goes against the grain of the slickness of the professionalised art world. It also helps dissolve the barrier between audience and the performance as there is no clear boundary as to where the stage begins and ends. As Shakespeare famously wrote, ‘All the World’s a stage,’ so if you are Chetwynd why not make the entire gallery space you’re stage? Previous work from Chetwynd has been based on the Wicker Man, carnivalesque and draws inspiration from the work of film directors such as Ed Wood who were celebrated for being ‘terrible’ movie makers. Oddly, I wasn’t that intrigued by the sort of funny but carefully choreographed performances themselves and the characters that animated them. The storytelling, ‘something to do with a slide, some eggs...who knows..’ was lost on me but I was engrossed in the ‘world’ that it was set in and think that with all sincerity there is something great about creating something that is so bad and doing it so well.
 Fowler’s 90 minute long film documentary about the life of psychiatrist of R D Laing has echoes of John Akomfrah’s film about Stuart Hall that I recently saw at the Liverpool Biennial. Both present the more personal lives of the men they portray and Fowler’s film shows and I quote, ‘the relationships between individuals and how society changes through time’. But that’s exactly the point, that I didn’t really quite get the point. I don’t know anything much about Laing and really struggled to endure the full length of the film that when I saw Akomfrah’s, whilst I was again ignorant to who Stuart Hall is, I was held by the imagery and storytelling to want to learn more. It feels unfair to compare Fowler in this way as hearing and looking at some of his other work, like some shorts he made for Channel four, actually look really interesting, I just feel like the piece shown here wasn’t doing it for me.

My two favourite artists nominated this year, however are Paul Noble and Elizabeth Price. Noble’s drawings are as subversive as they are huge and fill up most of the gallery wall. For their size they are extremely well drawn and executed and it is easy to get lost looking at the tiny details of pots, plants and phallic and excrement looking shapes. Noble created the drawings as s series , ‘Nobson Newtown’ and are based on creating city/landscapes out of a type font called Nobson. They are obviously not without humour and I think if anyone can make drawings of turds that capture and invite so much scrutiny and interest then that is a feat worth credit.
 However, Elizabeth Price’s digital film titled, ‘The Woolworth’s Choir of 1979’ would be without doubt the one I’d put my money on to win. The influence of conceptual artist Barbara Kruger’s advertising imagery of the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s seems very evident in Price’s digital montages particularly in the use of black, white and red echoing tabloid newspapers that Kruger and Price both used in their work.  A digital collage of media-like text, wording and imagery is cleverly edited to create multilayered meanings to existing and edited footage. In this case stock footage from news reports/interviews from a fire that broke out in a Woolworths department store in Manchester in 1979 and imagery from churches that reads more like a controlled PowerPoint presentation are fused harmoniously together alongside an accompanying finger clicking and Shangri-Las between each image. It creates new meaning that holds you in the same way that punchy advertising can but with more ups and downs as the pace speeds up and then slows down to dramatic effect. After seeing her piece, ‘User Group Disco’ at the British Art Show I was equally impressed and captivated this time. Maybe it is because Price creates work in a media-style language that we are all so familiar and used to that she draws her viewer in and really does create something that is immersive and powerful.
 Overall I admired the diversity of work presented and it was particularly refreshing to see a live performance piece and drawing based visual art be nominated. The work shown is serious, satirical and thoughtful which also means there is a great demand and expectation on its audience to engage and consider the work. For me, this makes it all the more interesting and difficult if not a little bit pointless to pick an overall winner. This year’s Turner Prize reminds us the important thing about its legacy is not the prize itself but all of the art it presents.
 If you are interested to know the winner of this year’s Turner Prize it will be announced on Channel four tomorrow, December 3rd at 07.30pm.

Or make your own decision and see the exhibition itself at Tate Britain until 6th Jan.
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